Monday, September 15, 2008

SPORTS: Thank You Mr. Shanahan

Finally! A coach has gone 'against' the book. And I bet he feels REAL GOOD about it. The coach in question? Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos.

Tell a football coach he's got one chance to score a winning touchdown from the opposition's two-yard line with no time on the clock and MOST of them would accept the chance and forgo playing the game. Naturally, after suffering through three hours of actual football, the coach will play for the tie and overtime, rather than risking it all on a win-0r-lose play. How stupid is that?

Denver was in a game it shouldn't have been Sunday night. The opposition San Diego Chargers were a better team on paper, and but for a computer malfunction in the first quarter and a referee malfunction in the last minute, were better on the field too. Normally, Denver should have indeed lost to the visiting squad. Despite having dodged those 'should haves', the Broncos were fourth and touchdown to go at the Charger four yard line, trailing by a converted touchdown. With no margin for error, Jay Cutler tossed a putative tying touchdown to rookie receiver Eddie Royal. The expected convert would likely tie the game and force overtime, the Chargers being out of timeouts and about a half-minute to play.

But Shanahan, god bless him, didn't blindly accept the common wisdom that you do kick the convert and hope like heck that the coin toss goes your way. This lunacy dates all the way back to 1984 when Nebraska Cornhusker coach Tom Osborne played to win rather than tie the Orange Bowl, knowing a tie would be good enough to win the national collegiate title. The two-point conversion attempt failed and Osborne was pilloried for the decision (although not by me). Since then, the mere thought of screwing up potential overtime in an attempt to win has quaked coaches in their shoes. It is just NOT DONE!

Shanahan didn't just decide out of the blue to break with convention this time. All the planets were aligned for this to be the correct call. First, the Broncos weren't likely to win overtime without the ball first. And maybe not even then. San Diego was better. Secondly, ALL the breaks were going Denver's way, including the inexcusable quick whistle in the final minute on a flummoxed Cutler fumble, which had San Diego grumbling and not at all concentrating. Thirdly, and this is important folks, there WAS a half-minute left on the clock.

Now, let me tell you what that meant. You see, Shanahan was NOT making the final decision in the game! That's right. If the play had gone cockeyed, the Broncos, having two timeouts remaining, had another shot.

An on-side kick.

Would that have been a great chance? No. But about one in five on-side kicks work and the kicking team gets possession somewhere around the midfield line. With two timeouts, a whole field to use and a kicker used to kicking in Denver's light air at high altitude (and usually successfully), it wasn't like Shanahan was moving all in with his bet. It LOOKED a lot gutsier than it was.

And it worked. Instead of Denver needing some luck on the kick-off and a pass or two to set up a winning field goal, it was SAN DIEGO facing the task of picking up about half the length of the field to arrange a winning field goal of the Chargers' own.

Way to go Mike. I hope you would have made the decision even without the on-side kick backup. But at least you coached rather than let a hoary old book decide how the game would end. Instead of an overtime deciding an exciting game, soon to be forgotten, we now have something for the ages. Maybe we'll see more coaches who see a game in their hands and don't let it go, to be decided later.

Often by a coin flip.

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